Califonia Bountiful

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Mar./Apr. 2016 California Bountiful magazine

Broccoli's popularity continues to rise

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California Grill chef Pablo Ramirez and Ashley Peixoto, who helped start the restaurant with her father, Dick Peixoto, show off some of the restaurant's dishes featuring broccoli.

Flowering heads of broccoli may be commonplace in the produce aisle today, but this nutrient-dense vegetable was actually a late bloomer in captivating the taste buds of Americans. 

With its roots in Italy, broccoli has been grown in Europe for centuries.However, when it was introduced in the United States in the 1700s, there was little enthusiasm for it.

That changed in the mid-1920s, when brothers Stefano and Andrea D'Arrigo, both immigrants from Italy, started a vegetable-farming business in San Jose after receiving some broccoli seeds in the mail from their homeland, where broccoli was already popular. As the brothers' produce business became a success, U.S. consumers also came to appreciate broccoli, inspiring more farmers to grow it.

Americans' appetite for broccoli continues today, with per-person consumption rising from 1.4 pounds in 1980 to 6.7 pounds in 2014. Broccoli is now the 11th most consumed fresh vegetable, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, and its rising popularity may be due in part to its reputation as a superfood.

Santa Cruz County farmer Dick Peixoto holds heads of broccoli harvested from one of his fields.

Farm-fresh, simply prepared
"Broccoli is pretty much a staple crop," said Dick Peixoto, a vegetable farmer based in Santa Cruz County. "It's one of the main vegetables that everybody eats. It's got a broad consumer base from all ethnic backgrounds, so it's one of our biggest items, and we produce it basically every day of the year."

Peixoto operates Lakeside Organic Gardens, the largest family-owned and -operated organic vegetable grower and shipper in the state. He also owns a restaurant, California Grill, which he started with his daughter Ashley.

Located in the town of Freedom, near Watsonville, California Grill features vegetables from the family's farm, including broccoli, which Ashley Peixoto calls her "chosen green vegetable."

"I just always remember growing up with it on my plate," she said. "I've always loved vegetables."

She said she likes to eat broccoli raw, maybe with some ranch dressing or sautéed with garlic and chili peppers ("I don't like too much fuss with vegetables"), while her father prefers his steamed or oven-roasted with garlic and olive oil.

All of California Grill's entrées are served with a side of steamed vegetables that come straight from the Peixotos' fields, delivered daily and likely picked hours before ending up on the plate. Broccoli and its close relative, broccolini—which has smaller florets and long, tender stalks—appear in a number of the restaurant's dishes, including in a tempura basket, a salad, a stir-fry and as a stand-alone side.

Juan Gonzalez, left, delivers a box of recently harvested broccoli to California Grill chef Pablo Ramirez.

Year-round versatility
California Grill chef Pablo Ramirez said he has always been a big fan of broccoli because of its versatility. Although his favorite way to eat it is steamed with lemon, butter and herbs, or in a stir-fry, Ramirez said he has been incorporating the vegetable into a variety of dishes, whether at the restaurant or cooking for his family. He also uses broccoli leaves as a garnish.

"I like working with broccoli very much because it's one of the few vegetables that you can do many things with—from soups to salads or as a side dish. You can bake it, poach it, fry it, steam it—do pretty much anything with it," he said.

Because of its many uses, Ramirez said he also appreciates that broccoli is available year-round and that the restaurant receives it every single day straight from the farm.

"The most important part is that it's fresh," Ashley Peixoto said. "We just try to keep the vegetables as fresh as possible."

Flower Power
In order for Lakeside Organic to supply year-round broccoli to its customers, including California Grill, Dick Peixoto farms in two different California locations: the Central Coast, which produces the crop from April through the end of November, and the Imperial Valley, where broccoli is harvested from December through the end of March.

Part of the mustard family, broccoli grows best in cooler temperatures, Peixoto said.

"If it's too hot, then it goes right to the flowering stage," he explained. "In the cool climate, we're able to keep it in the bud stage for a lot longer and we can harvest it in the bud stage."

The broccoli head is really a bed of flower buds. If left unharvested and allowed to go to seed, the buds turn into tiny yellow flowers with four petals that resemble a cross. Hence, all cruciferous vegetables, including cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts and collard greens, are so called because of their crucifix-like flowers.

Some of the harvested broccoli from farmer Dick Peixoto's fields is destined for his restaurant, California Grill.

Leaps of faith
Peixoto's farming roots can be traced back to Portugal, where his grandfather was a potato farmer. Though his grandfather continued farming after moving to Watsonville in the early 1900s, Peixoto said his first true exposure to farming came while riding around with his dad, a fertilizer salesman, as he made calls to local farms. That got him hooked.

"I really like the mode of growing crops," he said. "Back when I was a little kid working in the garden in the backyard, watching how crops grow intrigued me."

He started farming when he was still in high school by renting land and then building his business. Disappointed with what he was making in the traditional vegetable market, Peixoto switched to organic farming in 1995, hoping to fill a market void.

"There was definitely a lack of organic products and a lack of growers," he said.

Though naysayers told him farming vegetables organically couldn't be done profitably because of low yields, Peixoto said he didn't have any doubts he could do it, because he had seen others do it successfully.

"I said, 'If they could do it, we could do better,'" he said, noting that he started with 50 acres and now farms more than 2,300 acres.

Peixoto and his daughter took a similar leap of faith when they decided to open their restaurant in 2012. Ashley, who was 21 at the time, said her culinary and food-service knowledge was limited to having eaten at restaurants, watching her mother and grandmother cook, and having worked as a server in a retirement home.

"But we decided to be crazy and own a restaurant without having any experience," she said.

And just as the family's organic vegetable business has grown through the years, California Grill is growing, too—increasing from a staff of 10 people to 40 today.

"We're doing pretty well so far, knock on wood," she said.

Ching Lee

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